Assistant Professor Dan O’Brien has a fondness for opening public policy students’ eyes to the many ways they can use Big Data to explore the behavioral and social dynamics of urban neighborhoods.
“Being able to engage with Big Data is rapidly becoming a critical skill for those in urban research and policy; it’s the new ecosystem we’re living in,” O’Brien said.
He challenges students to harness the power of data streams from sources including the Census, 911 and 311 calls as well as building permits, and explore big-picture questions such as “How does a city deal with the challenges of housing a few million people in a relatively small area?” O’Brien sees the plethora of available data as nothing short of a game-changer when it comes to being able to create meaningful policy changes and effective public programs.
“It may sound glib, but doctors were bloodletting people 300-400 years ago until they knew more about how the body worked. We can think the same way about how to work with a city, which is a functioning system like the body. We now have the opportunity to precisely understand patterns and processes, and what gives rise to those things that we all see and experience. And this knowledge directly informs how the policy maker might better serve the city.”
— Dan O’Brien, assistant professor of public policy and urban affairs and criminology and criminal justice
Much of O’Brien’s current work builds on a methodology for measuring neighborhood characteristics in the digital age, including his projects as research director for the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), which brings together local researchers, policymakers and practitioners. His research on “broken windows,” or disorder in a neighborhood, takes a number of directions including how people perceive neighborhood disorder; the patterns of behavior that create or eliminate it; and the disorder’s relationship with outcomes—like teens’ behavior.
O’Brien encourages his students to make discoveries by using Boston as a living laboratory. “I’m a sincere believer that the city is a classroom,” he said.
In fact, his students—who are interested in fields ranging from social services to education to criminology—are graded on projects that require them to go to neighborhoods where they’ve never been, observe them with an eye to certain themes, and then write and present about what they saw. This provides a “real-world perspective” to complement urban informatics assignments that explore questions like, “What can we learn from 1 million check-ins at community centers?” and, “How can we translate the hundreds of 311 calls a day placed across the country into meaningful work?”
“When students realize how to use the massive information streaming in, it’s exciting because they realize they’re really seeing the pulse of the city,” he said. “As patterns become more accessible, informatics becomes less of a novelty and more a part of students’ education no matter what area they go into.”